'I am Ali Wallace': The Malay Assistant of Alfred Russel Wallace

September 15, 2015

The famous naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace collected natural history specimens throughout Southeast Asia from 1854-1862. One of the least known of the players in Wallace's story is his Malay assistant Ali, from Sarawak. This article combines the surviving evidence to bring Ali and his role in the expedition out of the shadows. Several corrections to traditional accounts are emphasized; these include the fact that Ali was not always a collecting assistant, but at first a cook; Ali did not travel with Wallace for the rest of his voyage, but left him for an entire year; and Ali may have collected the majority of Wallace's bird specimens. In addition, Ali's wages and itinerary are reconstructed for the first time. It is concluded that Ali made a major contribution to Wallace's scientific understanding of the Malay archipelago, not just with new ornithological discoveries like Wallace's Standard Wing (Semioptera wallacii), but by his contributions of knowledge.


2015 "I am Ali Wallace": The Malay assistant of Alfred Russel Wallace. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Society vol. 88, Part 1, No. 308 (June): 3-31.

The Tembusu (Fagraea fragrans) is a large evergreen tree in the family Gentianaceae. It is native to Southeast Asia. Its trunk is dark brown, with deeply fissured bark, looking somewhat like a bittergourd. It grows in an irregular shape from 10 to 25m high. Its leaves are light green and oval in shape. Its yellowish flowers have a distinct fragrance and the fruits of the tree are bitter tasting red berries, which are eaten by birds and fruit bats.